edition (June, 2006) of Social
Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience included a paper by Heatherton, Wyland,
Macrae, Demos, Denny and Kelley that uses fMRI to differentiate the neural
representation of oneself from that of one’s best friend:
Whereas neural responses to self-judgments in the …MPFC ROI…approximated a baseline level of MPFC activity, neural responses to intimate other- and non-referential-judgments were significantly deactivated relative to baseline.
The present results indicate an MPFC response that is self-specific – namely judgments pertaining to oneself were seen to be distinct from those made for one’s friend.
Social psychologists have found that Westerners (North Americans and Europeans) tend to view the self as an autonomous entity separating from others and to behave according to their own internal attributes and thoughts (the independent self). In contrast, East Asians emphasize the interconnectedness of human beings along with contingencies between the individual’s behavior and the thoughts and actions of others in the relationship (the interdependent self). However, it remains unknown how the cultural influence on self-representation is accomplished in the human brain.
Whereas the Heatherton experiment recruited subjects solely
from the Dartmouth area (justifiably with no mention of nationality), Zhu et al
scanned both Western (6 English, 4 American, 2 Australian and 1 Canadian who
all were living in China for less than a year) and East Asian subjects in their
laboratory in China. Here are their
In Chinese individuals, mother-judgments generated enhanced MPFC activity compared with other-judgments and the null condition. Consequently, the representation of Chinese mother cannot be distinguished from the representation of their selves, in terms of the MPFC activity, indicating that Chinese individuals use MPFC to represent both mother and the self. In contrast, MPFC activity corresponds to a representation of only the individual self in Western subjects.
And here’s the associated implication:
These fMRI results showed strong empirical evidence that MPFC mediates cultural influence on the neural substrates of representation of self and close others. While social psychological studies suggest that cultures create habitual ways of processing information related to the self and one’s important others, our fMRI results indicate that these habitual cognitive processes are accompanied by detectible parallel neural processes. The relatively heavy emphasis on interpersonal connectedness in Chinese culture has led to the development of neural unification of the self and intimate persons such as mother, whereas the relative dominance of an independent self in Western cultures results in neural separation between the self and others (emphasis mine).
In terms of the mainstream “catch-all” view that culture is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another,” these results certainly speak for themselves: something about being born and raised within an Eastern Asian community causes an individual’s neural representation of himself to parallel the neural representation of an intimate other.
But when one takes a multidimensional view of culture, the results of this study open more doors than they close: the “something” that generates “relatively heavy emphasis on interpersonal connectedness in Chinese culture” and the “other thing” that generates a “dominance of an independent self in Western cultures” remain obscured whenever we let the assertion that “culture matters” end the debate. Given that it undoubtedly matters, what does culture actually mean?
Consider the issue of scope. To what extent do individual components within the East Asian environment (i.e. family, teachers & peers) separately contribute to the development of the interdependent self? Alternatively, to what extent is the phenomenon driven by the gestalt of East Asian life? Alterations of the Zhu et al study could address these questions. If the experiment was replicated with second-generation Asian Americans, maybe the family-effect could be isolated from the societal-effect. Likewise, the school-effect could be examined by scanning Western subjects who attended Asian schools all throughout childhood. Would the results show that culture is represented by a continuous spectrum – anchored by independence and interdependence at the poles – on which Asian Americans and Americans in Asia can be placed somewhere in the middle? Or does some type of tipping-point phenomenon cause one culture to win out over the other, placing the imaging data toward one of the poles?
Experiments could certainly shed light on whether the culture-as-a-catchall view needs to be replaced. As knowledge, imaging technology and experimental techniques evolve, perhaps (1) the specific inputs to various cultures can be formally defined and (2) the neural processes that underlie these separate inputs can be illuminated. An understanding of how cultural elements affect brain activity might go a long way in explaining why given institutions succeed in one culture while they fail in others.